Automobiles are vehicles that have a motor to power them and are used primarily for transporting people. They are the most common form of transportation, with some 1.4 billion of them in use worldwide. They are driven some three trillion kilometers (five trillion miles) a year on average. They have become so prevalent that many aspects of modern life are inconceivable or at least highly inconvenient without them. Because of that, automotive engineers and scientists have pushed for technical improvements in the bodies, chassis, engines, and control systems.
The scientific and technical building blocks of automobiles go back several hundred years. In the late 1600s, Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens invented a type of internal combustion engine that burned gunpowder to spark the piston and push it down in a cylinder, which turned a crank to move a wheel. In the 1800s inventors tried to make cars that ran on steam, electricity, and gasoline. Cars powered by steam or electric motors could travel quickly but were difficult to start and their range was limited. Gasoline-powered cars became popular because they were easier to start and had a much greater range.
In the early 20th century, American industrialist Henry Ford developed revolutionary manufacturing techniques to bring down the price of his Model T so that it was affordable for middle-class families. He also made the vehicle versatile enough to sustain an industry of third-party add-ons. Today’s cars are largely designed to meet federal standards for safety and pollution control, but many companies continue to innovate with the introduction of new technologies such as driver-assistance systems that help keep drivers safe.